Bill McKibben, the author, journalist, and environmental and social activist was invited to the White House earlier this month to celebrate the Inflation Reduction Act, particularly its climate change components.
But when he packed the auditorium at Bedford’s Carleton-Willard Village for a recent talk, he confessed, “I’m well aware that the main reason everyone is here today is they’re afraid of what Mom would say if you didn’t come.”
Peggy McKibben and her fellow Carleton-Willard residents are prime targets for her son’s latest organizational effort, called Third Act. It’s for people over the age of 60 who are “determined to change the world for the better.”
“Young people lack the structural power to by themselves achieve the kind of change that we need. The people who have a lot of that structural power are the people in this room.,” he said. “There’s no known way to prevent old people from voting. We also ended up with most of the money. So that’s why we started Third Act.”
“It has been extraordinarily fun this past year to start building this movement,” McKibben testified. “People haven’t tried very often to organize older Americans for action. The reason is there’s a widespread belief that people become more conservative when they age. Our sense is it doesn’t really apply to this particular generation of older people.”
“Your early acts were when we were engaged in the social, cultural, and political transformation of this country,” he explained. But the second act (“with lots of noble exceptions”) was more involved with “consumerism than citizenship. Now we have resources, time, and legacy for the world you leave behind for the people you love the most.”
The Third Act website explains that chapters are organized “by where we live, and also by what we’ve done in our lifetimes. We call these working groups. Each working group will be supported by the national leadership. We will define overall campaign goals — with your input — but members have the freedom to decide how to make them work on the ground where they are.”
Carleton-Willard has an active chapter. Resident Marjorie Roemer told McKibben, “We have written thousands of postcards and are very happy to follow as best we can in your footsteps.”
Those footsteps began with a childhood in Lexington, and McKibben reflects on that in his most recent book, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon.
“What the book is really about is the need to place priority on community over the individual, McKibben said, adding that Carleton-Willard “is a place that figured out how to do community really well.”
Speaking for an hour without notes, McKibben presided at times over what felt like a genteel revival meeting, with one or more listeners murmuring agreement as he drove home points.
As detailed in the memoir, McKibben cited two early and conflicting Lexington memories. The first, in 1970, was the demonstration against the Vietnam War on the Battle Green, resulting in scores of arrests (including his father). “The reason that it stuck in my head is that it seemed to me of a piece of the country that I thought I was growing up in. Though full of turmoil, it seemed to be embarked on this project of self-improvement, the kinds of spirit that marked America since the Depression.”
“Those were the years when we started taking women seriously, the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, the birth of the environmental movement,” McKibben said, adding, “What was interesting about all this activism was that it by and large worked.” For example, there’s a straight line between the first Earth Day and environmental legislation.
But the second memorable event was in the spring of 1974, he said, when Lexington voters rejected by a 2-1 margin the advice of elected officials and voted to deny a 100-unit affordable housing development.
“These two events came to symbolize the two possibilities that America could have chosen – continuing with building a more united, connected society and the other in favor of a kind of me-first selfishness about things. The 1970s was the key decade when we made that decision by and large.”
And by 1980, he related, Lexington voted for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for President, “a fateful decision between those two visions.” That choice “turned out to be enormously important, and why we react so slowly to the enormous challenges that we face.”
Climate change is “the true existential crisis that the world has ever faced during our career as a species,” McKibben asserted. Currently, there are 33 million displaced Pakistanis “in what may be the worst flood since Noah. China had the worst heat wave we probably ever measured on the planet.” He also mentioned drying European rivers and Western lakes, “all of these are the things scientists knew were coming and that we didn’t respond to – in large part because we decided that markets were going to solve all problems.”
But McKibben also offered some “good news on the possibilities:” over the last 10-15 years the price of clean energy has dropped about 90 percent. Now the cheapest way to generate electricity is to point a sheet of glass at the sun. That’s a water-into-wine-scale miracle. It might allow us to move very quickly to deal with the existential risk.”
The recent federal climate bill “was a good, first, small beginning. But we’ve waited so long that now we have to move really fast. And the same obstacles are still there, mostly political influence of the oil industry.”
In answer to a question, McKibben noted that “40 percent of all the ship traffic in the world is carrying coal and oil just to get burned. The Exxon business model is, ‘I’m going to sell you this stuff for your entire life.’ They think the idea of the sun delivering it for free is just the dumbest business model they ever saw.”